In light of the recent huge popularity of zombies, I thought I’d step outside the box a little and focus on the art of making those brain-obsessed creatures look just right. Because it can be an art – and a very fun one. While mad props go to the makeup artists for turning good-looking actors into gross mutants, the costumers have their work cut out for them too. It takes precision to distress clothing, so that it looks genuinely filthy and bloody and is ripped in just the right places so as not to show (or show, depending on the piece!) too much skin. The 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead features a host of zombies in varying states of dress and undress. While some of them are a mess, others are actually quite clean considering their diet. But all are creepy.
The Walking Dead (AMC) does a great job with its zombie “fashion”. The “Walkers” are often dressed in a more neutral color palette, with varying degrees of blood and dirt. The costume department also has to contend with creating realistic holes left from zombie bites, and sometimes even missing sleeves or pant legs to accompany long-gone limbs. In addition to dressing the masses, they get to create some individualized Walker characters, like a little girl who needed to look both childlike and scary at the same time.
I actually have some personal experience dressing the undead. One of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on came when I was the resident costume designer for Meh-Tropolis Dance Theatre. It was a modern retelling of the ballet Giselle (our version was called Elle). The entirety of Act 2 was set in a graveyard, as the title character fought to keep from becoming one of the zombie-like creatures of the underworld. Said creatures rose from the ground in a chilling dance number, and the all-black costumes for each dancer reflected the era in which they died. We had everything from a nineteenth century woman to a WWII soldier to a faded Flapper. I also gave them each a splash of red indicating how they had died. (And given that they were supposed to have died violently, I spent a morbid but useful evening coming up with possibilities!) My particular favorite: red claw marks from an animal attack. Our production had the added challenge of double-cast dancers, all of whom had been living humans in Act 1. Since we didn’t have time to give thirteen people full body makeup during intermission, we dyed a bunch of old tights gray and cut holes in them to make them into “sleeves” that mimicked their decaying skin.
While audiences thoroughly enjoy watching zombies, we costume designers often have a blast dressing them as well. So next time you get your fill of mindless brain-hunters, have a little extra fun taking note of what it took to make them perfectly hideous!
*The costume designers for The Walking Dead are Peggy Stamper (2010) and Eulyn Womble. Night of the Living Dead does not list a costume design credit.